by D.W. Lundberg

Friday, October 31, 2014


Why do we love Horror movies? What is it about them we find so consistently fascinating? Is it the childlike thrill of the dark? A secret love for things that jump out and go "Boo!"? Or is it something deeper - a catharsis, say, a way of facing our fears head on, only to emerge, two hours later with a silly grin on our faces, into the light? The fact is, most of us like to be scared on one level or another. It's the adrenaline you feel, that thumping in your chest when you're forced to step outside your comfort zone. This is true whether you're jumping from a plane, climbing a rock face, or riding a roller coaster - you get addicted to it, like a drug. Horror films affect us in much the same way.

Even so, Horror movies tend to illicit different reactions from the people watching them. It's hard to feel threatened by Dracula, for instance, if you don't find vampires particularly frightful or menacing. The shark scenes in Jaws may turn your basic aquaphobe to a quivering mess on the floor, but the effect will be decidedly different for anyone who's spent a great deal of time out on the ocean. From the silent Expressionist films of the 20s (The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu) to Universal's classic monsters of the 30s and 40s (Frankenstein, The Wolf Man) to the slasher flicks of the 70s and 80s (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween and their countless clones) and finally to the J-Horror and "torture porn" films of the Noughties (Ju-On: The Grudge, Hostel), the genre has been fractured and splintered into so many subcategories that there's practically something for everyone. The question becomes: What kind of Horror fiend are you?

I've never been much of a gore hound myself. There's just something about endless scenes of torture and dismemberment which I find, I don't know, not very fun. And while I admit there's a market for this sort of thing (the Saw franchise alone has grossed over $877 million worldwide), that doesn't mean I have to like it. Or watch it. There are exceptions, of course - Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 (1987) comes to mind, which at least has a sense of humor to back up its scares, or George Romero's Dawn Of The Dead (1978), with its zombie apocalypse as metaphor for mindless consumerism in America. But for me, the most effective horrors are the ones you don't see - i.e., those "bumps" you hear in the middle of the night, rather than the things doing the actual bumping. (Think The Thing from 1951 - sufficiently spine-tingling for its first half, until you see that the creature is nothing more than a man in monster makeup.)

This is not to say that all Horror movies must be gutless to be good. The best ones, in fact, have the power to rattle and disturb you without resorting to unnecessary on-screen violence. To illustrate this, we'll take a look at specific "splatter"-free examples from every decade since the '60s - when gore-meisters like Herschell Gordon Lewis began eking out a living grossing us out on a regular basis.

Psycho (1960)

The granddaddy of all "slasher flicks" is of course Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), made on a minimal budget by a television crew. Everyone remembers the infamous shower scene, but do you recall a single shot where the knife pierces actual flesh? That's because there isn't one: In all of the scene's 50+ camera shots, the blade touches Marion's skin exactly once, and even then we only see its aftermath, as blood gathers around her feet and circles down the drain. The cutting (ahem) is so fast, and the motion so violent, that we only think we see what clearly isn't there (many viewers have even commented on the color of the blood, even though the movie was shot in black and white!). Audiences lapped it up, despite the film's overt themes of incest, transvestism and necrophilia - a testament to The Master's sheer command of the medium, and also to Psycho's anti-climactic final minutes, in which a talking-head psychotherapist helpfully explains away Norman Bates' condition. The perfunctory-ness of this final scene lets the audience off the hook, so to speak - makes everything we've just witnessed the horrors seem ordinary, clinical even, so that you walk away happy and humble that the horrors have been kept at bay. (Michael Powell's similarly-themed Peeping Tom, released just two months prior to Psycho, features no such explanatory sequences and was summarily denounced by the public.)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Tobe Hooper, on the other hand, makes every effort to implicate his audience with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and he does this by showing you almost next to nothing. Incredibly, Hooper set out to make a PG-rated film, avoiding the buckets of blood favored by his "splatter film" contemporaries, Wes Craven and Dario Argento. (The movie is based on the real-life murders of serial killer Ed Gein, who was also, coincidentally, the inspiration for Psycho.) But when he submitted the film to the MPAA, it received an R rating; it was the tone, they said, the mood it created, and nothing he cut from the movie would change that. Seen today, it's surprising how much of the violence happens off-screen; characters may get clomped on the head with a hammer or hung from a meat hook, but the acts themselves are often shot from a distance, or blocked by objects within the camera frame (despite the title, only one character is killed by actual chainsaw). Which is precisely the point: TTCSM creeps into your skull because of what it doesn't show - your mind makes up the rest, makes you an active part of it, like watching an amateur snuff film you can't look away from. That's a big part of its primal appeal, and why audiences feel so fascinated and disgusted by it.

The success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and also Black Christmas, released later that same year) paved the way for countless clones and copycats, most notably John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), another low-budget shocker with minimal blood. Carpenter favored good old-fashioned suspense over gross-outs and gore, and his villain, the maniac Michael Myers, was an emotional blank the audience could pin all their fears on. (Indeed, when Michael's mask is peeled off at the end of the film, audiences shrieked at the sight of his perfectly "normal" face underneath.)

By the mid-1980s, however, slasher films became virtually indistinguishable from each other, with a glut of cinematic serial killers - Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare On Elm Street, Jason and Mrs. Voorhees from Friday The 13th, the masked killers of Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine - all vying for a slice of the box office pie. The gore became gorier, the deaths more elaborate, and the plots an endless string of victims to be vivisected and debased for audience enjoyment. Even Michael Myers, Norman Bates and Leatherface got back in the action, with Halloween II (1981), Psycho II (1983) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986) - sequels with far more blood than their respective originals, as if trying to compete.

Poltergeist (1982)

80s alternatives to the slasher film included movies about vampires (The Hunger, Fright Night), werewolves (An American Werewolf In London, The Howling) and ghosts (The Shining, Lady In White). Undoubtedly the most famous of these "haunted house" movies is Poltergeist (1982), directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Steven Spielberg. Like Hooper's original Chain Saw Massacre, it's practically bloodless yet every bit as frightening (despite its many scenes of face-ripping and marauding, kid-swallowing trees, the movie still managed to squeak by with a PG rating), and will give you second thoughts about leaving on your television late at night. It is also one of the only films in history in which an entire family functions as the primary protagonist, rather than a single character trying to overcome obstacles alone. (Todd Alcott talks a bit here about the nature of "the Beast," the entity that threatens the Freeling family in the film. From a screenwriting perspective, I can see his point - as a villain, it's hard to pin down what hijinks the Beast might actually be up to. On the other hand, these poltergeists/hauntings/paranormal activities are notorious for making hardly any sense at all, so logic need not apply.)

Three new subgenres came into prominence during the 1990s: the Meta Horror film, J-Horror (Japanese Horror) film, and the Found Footage film. Movies that are "meta" - i.e., self-consciously aware that they are, in fact, movies - seemed to thrive in the wake of Quentin Tarantino's films, which often referenced pop culture in their screenplays. The most successful of these meta Horrors, Wes Craven's original Scream trilogy (1996-2000) and in-jokey New Nightmare (1994) spoofed the director's splatter-ific reputation (and the Horror genre in general) to spectacular effect. Yet even these mini-classics, clever as they are, devolved into non-stop bloodbaths from time to time.

Ringu (1998) /
The Blair Witch Project (1999)

In Japan, meanwhile, Horror films had been experiencing similar growing pains. Artsy fare from the 50s and 60s such as Ugetsu (1953) and Kwaidan (1964) soon gave way to the so-called "pink films" of the 70s and 80s - movies high in violent and sexual content. Then, in 1998, came the film that turned the J-Horror industry on its head. Based on the novel by Koji Suzuki, Ringu (directed by Hideo Nakata) retains all the elements we regularly associate with the genre: vengeful black-haired spirit girls, an aversion to technology (in this case, cursed videotapes), and a dreamlike, nonsensical plot that poses more questions than it actually answers. It also relies extensively on suspense and atmosphere to generate chills. (Says Nakata: "I'm not really into grotesque stuff."). Ringu's success at the box office led to multiple sequels and a host of similar films, including Spiral (2000) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2002). Just as quickly, though, the novelty wore off, and the films grew stale and repetitive, sometimes to the point of self-parody. (And the glut of vastly inferior American remakes certainly didn't help).

The same could be said for Found Footage films, shot entirely in the first-person (usually on digital video) and built around the improbable (borderline reprehensible) idea that the characters would stubbornly refuse to put their camera down, despite whatever's happening to them. Over the past 15 years, this sort of thing has been literally done to death (if you'll pardon the expression), with every genre - from zombie flicks to monster movies to the occasional comedy - trying to put a new spin on age-old material. None, however, could hold a stick figure to The Blair Witch Project (1999), Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's $600,000-budget, $248 million-grossing sensation, which actually held the title of Most Successful Independent Film for a time. Blair Witch might not have been the first Found Footage film ever made (by then, Cannibal Holocaust [1980] and The Last Broadcast [1998] had already beaten it to the punch), but it was definitely the first to capture the public consciousness, backed by a pre-release, pre-social media marketing blitz that was nothing short of genius. (So genius, in fact, the film's groundbreaking guerrilla tactics are still duplicated to this day.) The movie itself is a masterpiece of suspense and slow-sustained dread, much like its J-Horror counterparts, with a plot that seems to follow no basic set of rules.

If only more movies aspired to be more Blair Witch-like. Instead, the Horror films of the Noughties took a sharp left turn toward sadism, torture, and all-around depravity, the likes of which hadn't been seen since the exploitation-hungry 70s. The rise of the "torture porn" film - titles like Hostel (2005), Wolf Creek (2005) or Saw (2004) - signified a new low in American moviemaking, showing everything, leaving nothing to the imagination, pushing the limits of what could or could not be shown on a screen. And audiences couldn't get enough. Add to that Hollywood's unquenchable thirst for gorier, grittier remakes of popular "classics" (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [2003], Halloween [2007] and The Last House On The Left [2009], to name a few), and you had a recipe for the most divisive decade in the entire history of Horror.

Kairo (2001) /
Paranormal Activity (2009)

A few films stood out from the dross. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002), Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza's [REC] (2007) and Tomas Alfredson's Låt den Rätte Komma In (Let The Right One In, 2008), for example, elevated their respective genres to new heights of menace and meaning, despite being relatively high in violence and gore. Paramount's Paranormal Activity franchise, on the other hand, managed to wring new life from the Found Footage genre (for a while at least) by taking a page from the Blair Witch playbook - shot on minimal sets on a minimal budget with minimal blood. (By October 2010, Paranormal Activity had begun to trounce the Saw series regularly at the box office. So maybe there's hope for audiences yet.) Even the Noughties' one true Horror masterpiece, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's somber, dread-ridden Kairo (Pulse, 2001), was a rehash of familiar J-Horror tropes, but with much more on its mind than simple scares. (For a deeper dive into Kairo, [REC] and Let The Right One In, click here.)

Could it be that we've reached a saturation point as far as Horror movies are concerned? Now that the industry's covered the gamut of everything from zombies to serial killers to vengeful murdering fairies, to terrors seen and others best left unseen, are there any stones left unturned, any dark recesses of the mind left to explore? Or are we destined to repeat the same tropes and formulas with only minor variations in between?

The Conjuring (2013)

Indeed, even the most enjoyable genre film of the decade so far, last year's surprise blockbuster The Conjuring, plays like a retread of everything that's come before it. Like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it's based on "real" events, this time the actual case studies of paranormal investigators Earl and Lorraine Warren. Also like Chain Saw, the film was shot with a family-friendly rating in mind, but when it was submitted to the MPAA, the members there gave it an "R," because "[i]t's just so scary." (Only one act of violence is shown during the entire movie, when a man is bitten on the cheek.) Like Poltergeist, it tells the story of a family under siege from supernatural forces. And like The Blair Witch, Ringu and Pulse, it's a masterwork of slow-build tension, parceling out its scares ever so slowly before pulling out all its stops at the end. (The screenplay, too, is uncommonly structured for a Horror movie: by the time we catch up with the Warrens, teaching a class full of mouth-breathing college students about the three stages of a haunting, we've already witnessed the first stage - infestation - and, ingeniously, will experience the second two - oppression and possession - as the story progresses.)

Finally, the coup de grâce: the director is none other than Mr. James Wan, the same man who kicked off the "torture porn" genre only nine years before, with SawThe Conjuring might not exactly break the mold, but it's scary and it's fun and it's definitely proof that you really can teach a new dog old tricks. If you like that sort of thing, that is.

POSTSCRIPT: As with anything I write, the films included in this article are of a personal preference and should not be mistaken for a definitive list. For every one who appreciates the freaky frights of Ringu or The Conjuring, a dozen more will prefer the subtle nuances of Wait Until Dark or The Changeling. You're welcome to your opinion, of course, and I'd love to hear about it in the comments below, as well as any titles you feel have been unjustly ignored. (My favorite "scary" movie, Jaws, plays more like a solid adventure story than an out-and-out Horror film, and so barely gets a mention here.) Also remember, just because a movie like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre refrains from actual on-screen violence does not mean you should immediately pop it into your DVD player for the kiddies. Quite the contrary, in fact. My point was simply to highlight the notion that not all horrors need to be seen to be believed. Imagine a Hollywood-ized version of The Blair Witch Project in which the creature, played by a middle-aged woman in a fright wig, shows up early and often, cackling like Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard Of Oz, and you get the idea.

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